As COVID-19 cases surge anew, some towns lift mask mandates

Health experts and elected officials agree that facemasks are a key tool in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. But some local governments in the state have lifted mask mandates recently, even as the number of new COVID-19 cases in the state has started to surge. (Photo by JoLynn Walz Martinez/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – Payson Mayor Tom Morrisey thinks mask-wearing is one of the best ways to stop the spread of COVID-19 in his town – but he doesn’t want to force residents to do it.

Payson is one of a number of local governments that have lifted facemask ordinances in recent weeks, even as infections in the state have started to surge again, adding almost 4,400 new cases just since Sunday.

One health expert said relaxing mask mandates now is “foolish” for local officials that want to reopen their communities because it could lead to a surge that might bring on new, harsher shutdowns.

The moves come as COVID-19 infections have started climbing again, after dropping from a seven-day average of 3,454 cases per day in early July to 392 in early September. But the number has steadily grown since then, reaching a seven-day average of 1,002 new cases per day last week, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services.

The shift sparked a warning this week from Dr. Cara Christ, director of the state health department, who cautioned Arizonans from becoming complacent and losing ground from the progress the state has made since July.

“With the data showing COVID-19 still circulating in our community, Arizonans need to remain vigilant,” Christ said. She urged all Arizonans to wear a mask in public, socially distance, wash hands frequently, avoid large gatherings, stay home if they are feeling sick and get a flu shot.

“We know that masks are one of the most effective methods for preventing COVID-19 transmission, and we urge all Arizonans to appropriately wear a mask, whether or not they live in an area with a mandate,” she said. “There’s still more to do, and we can’t let our guard down.”

Gov. Doug Ducey has shied away from a statewide mask mandate. While the state requires masks in certain businesses – including bars, restaurants and gyms – Ducey has otherwise called on individuals to take appropriate precautions and left local governments to decide whether to require masks more broadly or not.

Six of the state’s 15 counties, which are home to most of the state’s population, have adopted mask mandates: Maricopa, Pima, Coconino, Yuma, Santa Cruz and Greenlee. The Greenlee County Board of Supervisors voted 2-1 on Oct. 20 to extend the county’s mask order at least until Dec. 12.

Some cities that lifted mandates, like Scottsdale and Gilbert, are still subject to county orders. But Payson and other towns – including Kingman, Sierra Vista and Lake Havasu City – are not. That’s just fine with Morrisey, who thinks mandates are “an overreach of government.”

“I think it does not really express a faith in people’s own judgment,” Morrissey said. “In some ways, it treats people like they’re children, and I’m opposed to that.”

Morrissey said it’s important to listen to scientists, but that local leaders have to listen to voters as well to make informed decisions about what’s best for their communities. Payson enacted a mask order June 18, but after monitoring the situation closely Morrissey decided to end it on Sept. 21.

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association said it’s “foolish” for city governments to relax these mandates. If local governments want to reopen their communities and not return to a stay-at-home order, he said, mandating face coverings must be the “top priority.”

“The single, most important thing that they can do is to require continued wearing of face coverings in indoor public environments,” Humble said. “It doesn’t need to be everywhere, it just needs to be in indoor public environments.”

Humble said lifting a mask mandate is “not the end of the world, but I think it’s absolutely foolish.”

Kingman Mayor Jen Miles said that in the face of “pushback” from city residents over a mask mandate put in place July 1, she took the issue to the city council after consulting with the city attorney and city manager. The council voted 4-3 on Oct. 20 to end the mandate that had been set to run through the end of the year.

Miles was on the losing side, voting to keep the mask order that she believes is one of the best ways to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“The consequences of not slowing it has a huge impact, not only on the human health toll, but also on our ability to open and keep open our businesses,” Miles said.

She recalled a time when people could smoke in airplanes and restaurants, but said laws and policies limiting smoking have been enacted over time to protect public health and safety.

“With or without the mask mandates, there are still myriad regulations about food service, licensing for many of our occupations,” Miles said.

Morrissey said he watched the case count closely in his town and, with input from the Gila County Health Department, based his decision on what was best for the town.

Payson’s population of about 15,000 residents regularly swells by thousands on the weekends, when tourists flock to the popular tourist destination to walk its streets. But Morrisey said that testing and social distancing have been “woven into the culture” of his town, which has helped it avoid a “concernable uptick” in cases since he ended the order last month.

Morrisey, like other local officials, said the situation is fluid and they are prepared to respond at any moment as things change.

“If there is an uptick, I will re-establish the mandate without hesitation,” he said.

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Josh Ortega is a California native and Army veteran who expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree. He serves as the business editor for the Downtown Devil in Phoenix.